Image Credit: EMPA
We like to see life cycle assessment being used in everyday situations, especially when it comes to helping businesses reduce their environmental impacts (and even if it means looking at rather archaic looking graphs like the one above). The scientists at EMPA (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science & Technology) — the creators of Ecoinvent, one of the most important life cycle databases — are using LCA to educate businesses that "being there is not everything where environmental issues are concerned." Environmentally aware entrepreneurs must ask themselves if they really need to be physically present at meetings or if virtual conferencing or phone conferences will suffice.
The EMPA gang has evaluated the possibilities using life cycle assessment and their results say that the most important factor in a real journey is the energy consumed by the means of transport (trains, planes or automobiles), something we don't find very surprising. But it's nice to see the clear numbers. They also say that rail is by far the best transportation option. Here's a bit of what they say:
[Energy consumed by transport] is responsible for more than 99.8 per cent of the environmental impact, regardless of how one travels. However, a video conference over the internet also consumes large amounts of electricity, for serves, routers, laptop computers and projectors all need to be powered up and some devices need to be cooled too. Together, they are responsible for about 95 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with this option.
Nevertheless, the two different scenarios considered differ decisively in the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions generated. The virtual meeting emerged with the best marks by far, producing a mere 20 kilograms of CO2 equivalent. This is almost entirely due to the fact that the data is transmitted over the internet. The most favourable travel option, by rail (in this case taking a high speed train via Paris) causes 108 kilograms, about a five-fold increase. Travel by air or road increases equivalent CO2 emissions to 315 and 373 kilograms respectively, a 16 to 18-fold increase over the virtual meeting.
They also calculated how the distance affects the impacts of the meeting and the results were surprising: for distances less than 200km it was less damaging to the environment when a single person had to travel by train than organizing a video conference. Take note that this was only true, however, when a single person had to travel the less than 200 km distance. If two persons need to travel then the distance is halved (i.e. it's only less damaging to take the train .
instead of doing a video conference if the distance is less than 100 km). Obviously, if ten or more people need to go to the meeting then a virtual meeting is much more environmentally friendly than a "live" one.
So there you have it. The next time your boss wants you to fly out for a one day meeting to see a client or hook up with another office, take a look at the distance you're going to travel and if you can go by train. If you can take the train by yourself less than 200 km, go for it. If it's more than 200km, arrange a video conference and reduce your impacts on the environment. You can read the entire press release and study summary on the EMPA website .
More on Virtual Conferencing and Telecommuting on TreeHugger:
Powerpoint and Virtual Conferencing — A Deadly Combination
IPPC Scientist Encourages Companies to Replace Travel With Video Conferencing
Telecommuting is Green and Saves Money, but Most Employers Still Resist It
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Telecommuting: Why don't you stay home?
Bill Encourages Telecommuting in USA
Air Travel and Climate Change: Take the Train